Friday, September 12, 2014

#75: Are RPGs Even Allowed to Have "Good" Combat?

As I said in last week's post, my free time has been spent playing old PlayStation 2 ATLUS RPGs. Having beaten Devil Summoner, I have been making progress through Digital Devil Saga. However, this is not an Impressions piece on that game as it will take some time to finish, now that college classes are taking up my time again. Worry not, my friends, because playing through this game has given me an interesting idea for a subject of an article. One idea has been clawing at the back of my mind for some time now. This idea is as follows: “Are RPGs even allowed to have 'good' combat?”

This might at first seem like a weird question, but hear me out. Though this is not always the case, most gamers, on some level, associate RPGs with longer playtimes than would typically expected of other games. These lengths usually exceed 30 hours, and it is not uncommon for them to go up to 50 hours or greater. In order to facilitate player engagement for the entire length of one of these games, combat has to fill a very particular niche. Should the fighting be too busy, then players will become fatigued from having to repeatedly consume mental stamina to stay on top. This will result in them either taking long breaks between sessions, or being incapable of playing for more than an hour or so at a time before they need to call it quits.
Kingdoms of Amalur served as a decent example of that. At a minimum, a typical playthrough will take about 50 hours to clear. In order to keep the player's attention throughout this length, the development team went out of their way to try to make the best combat they could. In order to have good fighting in the game, they made players have to watch all of their enemies in order to know when to dodge attacks and counter with their own. It requires observation of the enemy, their patterns, and the properties of their attacks. Further, a sense of timing and, to a lesser extent, rhythm is needed to capitalize on openings and avoid making them yourself. There is quite a lot going on, even in beginning fights. While the game does have a leveling mechanic, so fighting against enemies of lower/higher level will make it easier/harder, the game does a fairly good job of keeping the player at just the right level to get a decent challenge going throughout the experience.
Unfortunately, this style of combat has drawbacks that can only be seen when placed in an RPG and extended for long lengths of time. First, the player's attack properties are always in flux. Different weapon types possess different attack animations, so equipping a new weapon can completely throw off the sense of timing and result in unnecessary grief in a fight. Even when the same type of weapon is equipped, each one has their own properties. This results in dealing different damage and having different ranges. It might not sound like much, but that can have a dramatic impact on overall strategy. While some of this is necessary in order to keep scenarios new and interesting, the nature of the game makes this so regular that players rarely have time to get used to old tactics before new ones are needed. Other issues crop up as well. For example, the mental strain required to keep all of these factors in mind is draining. It results in a feeling of general exhaustion when playing the game. Such feeling are exacerbated when the typical RPG trappings of inventory management and character development are included. The constant need to fiddle with equipment and build setups, while partaking in very active engagements, can reduce even the strongest willpower to nothing.

On the other hand, RPGs cannot make the combat too boring. This opposite problem is what many people who shy away from RPGs typically associate with them. If the game does not make its combat engaging enough, players will still not play it for very long, for surprisingly similar reasons. A boring, monotonous slog can often be exactly as draining as overengagement. As a result, a game that does not bring a proper level of engagement to the forefront will tire out users and get them to stop playing.
Final Fantasy XII had this problem in spades. The combat system, seemingly inspired by MMOs, took place in real-time, with attacks taking a period of time to perform depending on the user's speed stat. The game also had a system called Gambits. Basically, the game allowed players to control the player AI's algorithm, as determined by a series of if-then statements. As a result of this system, most of the game was automated. Tasks like healing, buffing/debuffing, and exploiting enemy weaknesses could simply by handed off to the AI. Theoretically, this could be free the player up to focus more on task at hand, dealing with fighting on the macro level as opposed to the micro level. In execution, most fights could be completed without a single input of the part of the player. All the player really had to do was make sure the party was moving throughout the dungeon, completing the puzzles and getting to the next cutscene. As a result, it gets boring quickly, and finishing the game can be considered a bit of a chore.

In order to keep players interested throughout the length of the game, the combat needs to be just challenging enough so that it draws and holds the player's attention without taxing them too heavily. Heading too far in either direction will just tire the player out, either through exhaustion or boredom. While the player needs to be “going through the motions” to a degree, some variety must come from somewhere in order to keep interest, while still maintaining a structure to the combat. This is ultimately where the crux of my argument comes from. Can this balance really be seen as “good” combat? Is it “fun” in the traditional sense? Or is it merely good enough to hold a typical player's attention throughout the course of the game, without honestly being that entertaining in its own right?

I do not honestly have that answer. As much as I mulled over this point and even after playing countless games in the genre, I cannot reach a satisfactory conclusion. Thus, I would like to hear your input on the matter. Should any of you have an opinion on this subject that you wish to share, please feel free to contact me, either in the comments below or on social media. I look forward to hearing from all of you.

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